When I was in 5th grade, someone told
my mami: “Wow, Priscila es bien alta.”
And my mami simply smiled, because she did
not have the heart to tell them that I was not
tall, I was 12 years old and in 5th grade.
School was always hard for me. I was never a straight A student. I wanted to be that student really badly, but no matter how hard I tried school was just too hard.
I went to school at Marjory Stoneman Douglas Elementary School, in Pequeña Nicaragua (also known as Little Nica). One of the biggest migration waves of Latinxs was in the late 80s/early 90s, which is when my family and I migrated to the USA. During that time there was a huge influx of immigrants from all over Latin America and the Caribbean and schools like mine were simply trying to keep up with us all.
I was not born in the USA, I was born in a small country surrounded by a few other small countries that are locked between North America and South America. I was born in the country of Nicaragua, and in Nicaragua, I graduated from 1st grade, and in theory, I was supposed to go to 2nd grade when we moved.
I remember my 1st day of 2nd grade like it was yesterday…
I walked in very hesitant because I was scared to go to a new school in this new country. But I was also really excited because I loved making new friends and I just wanted to see who these new friends were going to be.
My teacher was a young new teacher, Latina, and her name was Ms. Martinez. When Ms. Martinez saw my mami and me, I remember thinking how warm and friendly she looked. She had a head full of untamed beautiful curly brown hair and a smile that could silence a room.
Ms. Martinez knelt down and said to me in English: “Go find your seat.”
I had no idea what she was saying to me because I did not speak English yet so I walked up to any seat I found and sat down, waving anxiously to my mami so that she knew I was okay. As soon as she realized her mistake of assuming that I knew English, she proceeded to speak to me in Spanish.
Ms. Martinez said: “Tienes que encontrar tu asiento.”
All this was happening as my mami stood nearby watching this interaction. This new command I fully understood because I finally understood the words that came out of Ms. Martinez’ mouth, however, I did not understand what she meant, because as far as I was concerned I had already found a seat, and I was attempting to make it mine.
Encountering illiterate incoming students was just something that these public schools in Latinx neighborhoods had to deal with.
You see what had managed to evade everyone else’s mind was that I did not know how to read. So while ALL the desks had nametags on them, I did not see them because I did not even know my alphabet by then. I had no clue what I was seeing in front of me. When Ms. Martinez finally realized what was happening, she asked my mami if I knew what my name looked like, and my mami said: “No.” I oftentimes wonder if she felt ashamed because it was not her fault that I could not read.
Then Ms. Martinez held me by my shoulders, I think fully realizing what this school year was going to look like and asked me to read the ABC’s to her in Spanish from the banner above the chalkboard. This is when I turned to her and said: “Yo no sé el alfabeto.”
I do not know what happened next, but I do know that I was taken out of that 2nd-grade class and taken to a 1st-grade class. And in no time I was pulled from my class to tutoring with a specialist who taught me how to read in one-on-one interactions.
Encountering illiterate incoming students was just something that these public schools in Latinx neighborhoods had to deal with. Teachers were also tasked with having to deal with bigger classrooms and mostly Spanish-speaking classrooms with ESL programs that were ready to accommodate a 70-80% Spanish speaking/new immigrant student body.
I learned to love reading because it was the one thing that helped me imagine myself as whatever I wanted to be.
Furthermore, nobody spoke to me and told me that this was not my fault. I do not remember being told that I had nothing to be ashamed of, rather everyone just focused really hard on getting me to catch up to the first graders. What all this meant was that I always felt dumb for a really long time. Because school was always hard for me due to my struggle with a learning disability, and no matter how hard I tried I think I needed someone in my corner telling me I was doing enough.
I learned to love reading because it was the one thing that helped me imagine myself as whatever I wanted to be. I ended up attending a four-year university and getting a bachelor’s in Literature – ironically. I have read more books than the majority of the population. Then I attended one of the most prestigious universities in the USA and obtained a Masters degree. Yet I would have and could have never imagined that this is where I would end up. And I think that if I could talk to the scared immigrant younger version of myself if I could talk to that tiny-me that could not even read her own name on her first day at a USA school, I would tell her:
Brown girl, this world is not ready for someone like you.
You are an odds-defying dream. You are your mami’s
proudest creation. This world will try to clip your
wings but you, my beautiful brown princess, you will
fly higher than anyone in your family has ever been
allowed to dream possible.
And today is just one hard day, but tomorrow, tomorrow it gets better.